- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2021

President Biden said Tuesday that he expects the U.S. to have enough vaccines for every adult by the end of May, instead of July, as pharmaceutical giant Merck agreed to help rival Johnson & Johnson make its COVID-19 vaccine.

Mr. Biden said Merck will set up two facilities to help its competitor. He also said J&J’s manufacturing sites will begin operating 24-7 to churn out its vaccine faster and complement increasing supply from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

“This country will have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” Mr. Biden said, though he cautioned that efforts to administer the shots will extend beyond that.

Merck, a well-known New Jersey company that produced an Ebola vaccine, will provide “fill and finish” services that package the J&J one-shot vaccine in vials. They will also make the actual vaccine.

“This is a major step forward. Two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, that are usually competitors, are working together on the vaccine,” Mr. Biden said at the White House. “This is the type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II.”

Federal regulators approved the J&J vaccine for emergency use Saturday, so states are receiving nearly 4 million doses this week. 

But federal officials were disappointed by manufacturing hiccups at J&J after it entered a contract for 100 million doses by the end of June. The changes announced Tuesday are designed to move up the timeline to May.

Earlier this year, Sanofi agreed to let rivals Pfizer and BioNTech use one of its plants in Frankfurt, Germany, to fill and finish vaccines for the global supply.

The unusual alliances highlight the extent of the COVID-19 crisis.

Countries are pushing to outrace the coronavirus, which is mutating into stronger versions as governments try to immunize their way out of the pandemic that has killed 2.5 million people worldwide.

The World Health Organization says cases are rising again after two months of declines and Biden officials are worried about a plateau in reported infections, citing the fast-moving viral variants and local moves to lift restrictions while transmission remains high.

“It’s not over yet. Stay vigilant,” Mr. Biden said.

Merck dropped out of the race to produce a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year, saying its version didn’t produce a robust antibody response. It focused on treatments instead.

The company on Tuesday said it will receive nearly $270 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to adapt its facilities and manufacture J&J’s vaccine.

“This funding from BARDA will allow us to accelerate our efforts to scale up our manufacturing capacity to enable timely delivery of much-needed medicines and vaccines for the pandemic,” said Mike Nally, executive vice president for human health at Merck.

The White House took a victory lap but acknowledged that talks between the companies began before Mr. Biden took office.

“There’s a difference between conversations and it moving forward,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The president intends to use the Defense Production Act — a Korean War-era law that allows the president to compel production — to give Merck contract-priority on the machinery it will need from vendors.

The U.S. is delivering an average of 1.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine per day, mainly the messenger-RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, as J&J enters the mix.

American vaccinators have administered the most overall doses of any country — about 77 million — but experts say the daily pace needs to reach about 3 million per day to gain widespread immunity by late summer.

Scientists say anywhere from 70% to 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated to get sufficient immunity. That suggests there is little wiggle room if children, who account for about 22% of the population, aren’t vaccinated in the coming months and many adults resist.

Experts say children should be included in herd-immunity calculations, although the issue is complicated.

“Reaching herd immunity is less of a yes/no threshold and more of a gradual slope — the higher percent protected via vaccination, the better,” Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. “There are ongoing and planned vaccine trials in younger-age children, so hopefully in a few months we will have efficacy and safety data that would move us toward vaccinating younger kids as well.”

Prioritizing older adults, however, should reduce mortality while immunizing young adults should thwart much of the spread, according to Dr. Stephen Michael Kissler, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“As a result, we should see major reductions in deaths, hospitalizations, and overall cases even before we start vaccinating kids,” he said. “The main point, I think, is that it’s probably necessary to vaccinate kids to achieve herd immunity. But by vaccinating adults, we should still be able to get to a point where [the virus] poses much less of a threat to our individual and collective health — even if we don’t properly reach the herd immunity threshold.”

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